On Loneliness

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Photo of an Arkansas dawn by Steven Nawojczyk

I have always hated feeling lonely. Being alone meant sorrow for me, and in my younger years, I did everything I could to avoid spending time alone, trying to keep loneliness at bay. The more people I could have around me, the more alive I felt.

And then I began to experience the deep loneliness one can experience even when surrounded with people. That is to me the most painful loneliness of all — being lonely in a crowd, suddenly coming face to face with my emptiness, discovering that no one is ever truly present with me.

Growing older has taught me that being alone is actually life-giving. Sometimes being alone brings the kind of silence we need to draw closer to God, hearing the sacred whispers that reach the depths of the soul. Silence can bring a more intense awareness of the bursting life all around us, the rise and fall of the cicada’s song in the summer, the sweet music of birdsong, the delightful sound of fluttering hummingbird wings, the silence of the night broken only by the sounds of katydids and crickets.

I recently read these words from the children’s fantasy novel, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.

― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

It truly is beautiful . . . being alone with silence complete enough to listen and to truly hear. It is one thing to be alone, but quite another to be alone with God. Being alone with God is being in the silent, sacred place where the soul meets its creator. It is finding the quiet, holy place of falling into the arms of a God who abides and protects. It is coming near to the “mercy seat” where disconsolate seekers bring their wounded hearts. It is sitting in the place where we learn that “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” *

I have learned, even in my loneliest times, that there is abiding truth in the words of philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich.

Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone; solitude expresses the glory of being alone.

Being alone taught me that, even when not one human soul is around me, I am never truly alone. And I rest my hope in these words, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Amen and amen.

 

“Come, Ye Disconsolate,” Lyrics: Thomas Moore (1779-1852); Altered by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872); Music: Samuel Webbe (1740-1816)

Please enjoy this beautiful hymn presented by the Baylor University Men’s A Cappella Choir at this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mNqzhfB4y1I

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Aren’t you tired of being mean?

IMG_5860August 27, 2017, marked an action of sacred change among the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. I was proud of the church I have recently become a part of, not only because of our adoption of a policy that ensures the full acceptance of LGBTQ parsons, but also because of the thoughtful and intentional process that resulted in the decision for inclusion, acceptance, unity, justice and love.

The church leadership spent a great deal of time and energy in a discerning process that led to this recommendation:

“The Church Council and Board of Deacons of the First Baptist Church of Christ support the full inclusion in the life of the church of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. In light of this statement, the Church Council and Board of Deacons recommend thar full inclusion encompasses same-sex marriage in our church facilities.”

The leadership then planned a series of congregational meetings so that every member felt respected and heard. I was present at two of three community meetings that included review of Scripture, open dialogue, listening to one another, respecting diverse views, eating together, singing and praying. Following those meetings, the motion was brought to the church in business conference. The motion passed with 73% of the congregation voting to approve. An amazing phenomenon for a Georgia Baptist church!

I could not help but think that this result was much more than a single vote. It was inclusion and acceptance. It was a proclamation of justice and unity among people of faith. It was a community of God’s people seeking to live out Christ’s commandment to love one another.

This week I read about the creation of a newly penned doctrinal statement in which a coalition of conservative evangelical leaders laid out their beliefs on human sexuality, including opposition to same-sex marriage and fluid gender identity.

The signers of the Nashville Statement say that it is their response to an “increasingly post-Christian, Western culture that thinks it can change God’s design for humans.” Since it was released Tuesday morning, the Nashville Statement has received praise for its clarity. It has also been denounced as very hurtful and harmful to LGBTQ people.

I read the Preamble and pondered each of the fourteen Articles of the statement. With sadness, I looked through the list of hundreds of signers, finding the names of leaders from all of our original Southern Baptist seminaries. I remembered the loss of our seminaries and the painful times that our beloved seminary professors endured. Most of all, I cringed at the statement’s language. I thought about my many LGBTQ friends and recalled their Christian faith. And I was very troubled, frightened by the many ways that hate can flourish in our world.

I then read an article in response to the Nashville Statement by my long time friend, Nancy Hastings Sehested, published in the latest edition of prayer and politiks.org. I can come up with no words that are as fully Christian as Nancy’s thoughts in this insightful article. I print it here in its entirety.

Tired of Being Mean: A Response to the “Nashville Statement”

It was the last night of Vacation Bible School at the Sweet Fellowship Baptist Church. All week our five year olds rehearsed the story of Pharaoh and Moses to dramatize for their parents. All four boys wanted to be mean ‘ole Pharaoh.

With the church pews filled with family, the performance commenced. Our wee Pharaoh sat on his throne holding his plastic sword. Then little Moses walked up to him with his shepherd’s crook and said, “Pharaoh, stop hurting my people. Let my people go.”

Our Pharaoh wielded his sword in the air and said, “Never, never, never!”

Moses walked away and then returned with the same words. “Pharaoh, stop hurting my people. Let my people go!”

Pharaoh said nothing. I thought he’d forgotten his lines. I scooted toward him and whispered, “Say ‘Never, Never, Never’.”

Nothing.

Then our little Pharaoh jumped down from his throne, threw down his sword and said, “I’m tired of being mean. I don’t want to be mean anymore!”

Imagine meanness in the world ending due to fatigue.

It seems that we are simply not tired enough. But surely we are close to exhaustion sorting out who needs our meanness now. Just flipping through the Bible to find which people to hate is draining. These days it’s hard to find a Midianite to kill. Stoning incorrigible teenagers to death in the town square could leave few maturing into adulthood. Abominating people who are “sowers of discord” or have “haughty eyes” could unleash a bloodbath in our churches.

Aren’t we worn out yet from using the Bible as a bully stick for meanness?

The “Nashville Statement” is a clear indication that some religious Pharaohs are not tired of wielding their sword of hatred. But the rest of us are tired of one more abusive word against gay, lesbian and transgendered people in the name of religion. Who’s next? Women ministers? Oh, wait. That’s a mean streak that started decades ago.

Signers of the statement, here is a word to you: Don’t you have something better to do? Feed the hungry? Visit the prisoners? Shelter the homeless from the hurricane? Give the thirsty some clean drinking water? Stop mad men from starting a nuclear war? If you are afraid of the world changing too fast or becoming too complex for you, then say, “I’m afraid.” Then be assured that God is with you in this changing world. But don’t use your own selective Bible verses to hurt beloved people of God. We’re tired of your meanness. God is too.


– Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested

Co-Pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, North Carolina

August 31, 2017

 

My final words for this day’s blog post are simple:

Amen.

Thank you, Nancy.

May God bless the extravagant love shown by Macon’s First Baptist Church of Christ.

And may we all grow tired of being mean!

Remembering Everything

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As a young child, I remember the very, very long Greek Orthodox liturgies of Holy Thursday. We called the day Great and Holy Thursday. Other faith traditions name it Maundy Thursday; others the Thursday of Mysteries. The worship service seemed endless to me, and it was about everything: the washing of the disciples’ feet, the Last Supper, the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Christ by Judas.

On Great and Holy Thursday, light and darkness, joy and sorrow are strangely mixed in the light of the Upper Room and the darkness in Gethsemane. The light of the holy kingdom and the darkness of hell capture us simultaneously. The way of life and the way of death converge on this one Holy day.

It is a portrayal of our very lives, for on our journey through life we meet up with both life and death. We cannot avoid either, though we cling ever so tightly to life and fight with all our might to conquer death.

Here in the remembrances of this day, Jesus shared a sacred meal with his disciples, washed their feet in an act of love, experienced the harsh agony of Gethsemane and endured the pain of betrayal by one of his own. Yes, Great and Holy Thursday is about everything.

The Epistle to the Hebrews wraps up the Gospel in a sacred package that is God’s Final Word in His Son.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.

When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

– Hebrews 1:1-3 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

What an act of worship it is when we remember everything — the central events of the final week of Jesus’s life — on Great and Holy Thursday.

Me, God, and So Many “Why” Questions

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After living for over 67 years — much of that time as a Christian and a Christian minister and chaplain — one would think that I had worked through all the “why” questions about God. I’ve had Holy moments holding vigil at the bedside of dying patients in the hospital. I’ve had miracle moments watching a grieving mother pray her brain-dead son back to life. I have experienced questioning moments standing before a God I could not understand.

Why do young children get sick and die? Why does disease ravage a body? Why do people have to suffer? Why are there starving children in the world? Why?

Do I worship a God who cares about that? And if God does care about all those tragedies, then why . . . you know the rest of that question.

So what does it really mean to pray? What’s my role in it? What’s God’s role in it? What can I expect from a sincere fervent prayer lifted up to a caring God?

Sylvia Plath wrote, “I talk to God, but the sky is empty.”

I can identify with that feeling. I know the frustration of praying to a silent God, hoping for an answer, hoping my faith will be enough. Obviously, I have found no answers to the hundreds of “why” questions. I do not know how God works with me. I do not know if my prayers will be answered. I do know that I can live with all the “whys” by the hardest, by faith.

I recently observed several months in the life of a 23 year old woman who battled cystic fibrosis since she was two years old. Eleven months ago, she received a life-giving double lung transplant. On March 17, she died after her body rejected the new, healthy lungs. The thing is, almost 50,000 people prayed for her through it all. They prayed day and night, asking God to heal her. After she died, a friend posted the above image to her Facebook page.

I cannot say I understand God’s ways, why one person is restored to health and another is not. Fortunately faith does not have to understand. Faith just endures through it all. So what is prayer all about? What are the answers to all this “why” questions? I do not know. I do not have to know.

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

― Mahatma Gandhi

It’s all about the soul, I think. Taking hits, experiencing grief and pain, deep down human sorrow . . . the soul is where the questions live. One of my favorite hymns expresses this so well.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

– Katharina A. von Schlegel, pub.1752
translation by Jane L. Borthwick, pub.1855

Please take a few minutes to enjoy this hymn at the following link:

When “Moonlight” Upstages “La La Land”

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Moving through Lent can be a brutally honest journey, a journey for looking deeply within ourselves and trying to make peace with what we find there. More honesty can bring more contrition. If we are wise, we will not allow ourselves to trudge through guilt and self-recrimination. Instead, we will open our hearts and souls to transformation.

Still, Lent can be a season of wilderness filled with confusion. It is meant to be a journey of personal lament as we look straight into our hearts, which the place where transformation happens and resurrection is possible.

I was brought to tears a few nights ago as I read a Lenten meditation written by my friend, Ken Sehested. I share with you just a brief section of Ken’s meditation.

Lent is the liturgical season where this confusion rises to the surface, and we—especially people of privilege—are asked to enter the wilderness from which God, apparently, has absconded: where things don’t work out, where movies lack happy endings, where the faces of children are not cherry-cheeked, downy-soft, delightfully radiant.

Lent is the season when “Moonlight” upstages “La La Land.”

Lent beckons us into the wilderness, and there – through honest reflection and genuine repentance – we find transformation.
Read Ken Sehested’s excellent meditation, Lent is the season when “Moonlight” upstages “La La Land,” at this link:
http://www.prayerandpolitiks.org/articles-essays-sermons/2017/02/28/lent-is-the-season-when-moonlight-upstages-la-la-land.2487935

A Ring of Peace

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Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because of your false words and lying visions, I am against you . . . My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will not belong to the council of my people . . . Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash.

– From Ezekiel 13: 8-10 NIV

Peace can be elusive. Unity can be very difficult to achieve when so many voices cry out for division, brother against brother, sister against sister. But God is clear about peace among people. God commands us to seek peace with all our hearts and to be about the work of creating unity. One Canadian group is taking God’s command seriously.

Members of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple will form a human chain, a ring of peace, around the Imdadul Islamic Centre this coming Friday while Muslim worshippers attend the weekly prayer service.

Co-organizer Zeeshan Abdullah said this to an Oslo crowd of over 1,000 people. “We want to demonstrate that Jews and Muslims do not hate each other. We do not want individuals to define what Islam is for the rest of us.”

Can we reach beyond our comfort zones to create a ring of peace? Can we value unity as deeply as God values it? I believe we can. I believe we must!

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

– Psalm 133 NIV

A Prayer for Peace and Unity

God, who cherishes all people and every person,

Make our hearts like your heart. Fill our spirits with the deepest desire for peace and unity. Move us, by your Spirit, to create rings of peace that include all people.

Infuse in us the courage we need to dissent against all that causes divisiveness, against all that devalues humanity. Instead, inspire us to peace.

Ennoble us to unity however we speak it . . . umoja, unidad, unita, unitat, ενότητα, ubunye, unity! Amen.

Dust or Clouds

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It’s not always easy to nurture one’s spirituality. Things keep getting in the way, mundane things like cleaning and cooking, shopping and organizing drawers. But the question is, “what activities are spiritual?” Praying? Reading the Bible? Meditating?

Of course, those are the activities we consider to be spiritual, but those who are most acquainted with spirituality would tell us that we can find the spiritual in the ordinary. They would tell us that being mindful of every moment can be a spiritual act, no matter what we’re doing. I like the way Bishop Steven Charleston expresses it.

“Following a spiritual path is walking through the dust more than flying through the clouds.”

Here’s what else he says on the subject.

Sometimes we like to think of the spiritual as something very esoteric or mystical, and sometimes it is. But far more often, the spiritual is the common. It is the everyday. Following a spiritual path is walking through the dust more than flying through the clouds. It is less about what we discover alone on the mountaintop and more about what we share down in the valley. The spiritual is the now. The here. The next choice we make. It is how we behave, how we work, how we take responsibility. What is spiritual is what we practice with reverence and intention. It is what we do in order to become what we want to be.

Without a Song

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What a life is ours! Doesn’t anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the middle of the night and sing?

Mary Oliver, Upstream

The truth is that singing is good for you. For thousands of years, in all cultures, in all parts of the world, people have been singing.

Singing is in our genes and in human nature. All types of singing have positive psychological effects. The act of singing releases endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals.

The urge to sing – and to hear others sing – is in all of us. Singing – like laughter, play, sunshine, countryside and exercise – helps underpin and maintain our well-being and happiness.

You don’t even have to be good at it!

“Without a Song” is a popular song with music by Vincent Youmans and lyrics by Billy Rose and Edward Eliscu, published in 1929. The song holds a great message.
Without a song the day would never end.
Without a song the road would never bend.
When things go wrong a man ain’t got a friend,
Without a song.

That field of corn would never see a plow.
That field of corn would be deserted now.
A man is born but he’s no good no how,
Without a song.

I got my trouble and woe but, sure as I know, the Jordan will roll;
And I’ll get along as long as a song is strong in my soul.

I’ll never know what makes the rain to fall.
I’ll never know what makes that grass so tall.
I only know there ain’t no love at all
Without a song.

Enjoy your day. Try a little singing.

Happy Forty-Seven

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If you know me very well, you have heard this quirky and delightful story. If you haven’t heard it, then you are about to hear about the beginning of a forty-seven year marriage. Happy anniversary to my beloved husband!

This is the story of an impetuous 19-year old girl and her proposal of marriage. It was on the campus of the University of Alabama that this unlikely love bloomed. Fred and I knew one another casually, but our friends never pictured us as a couple. We were just too different.

On a bet with his friends, Fred asked me to go out on a date, Homecoming weekend, 1968. It was a concert on campus featuring Andy Williams and Roger Miller. Much to the surprise of my roommate and my dorm friends, I accepted. They waited in my dorm room anxiously for me to return from the evening. When I got there, I told them that I was going to marry Fred.

They literally rolled in the floor in laughter. But two days later, I said these words to him while we walked on the beautiful Alabama campus. “God told me that we are going to get married.”

His reply was that God had not told him any such thing. As always, God knew best, and we have had a marriage filled with forty-seven years of happiness.

The moral of this story? God even speaks to silly 19-year old college girls! Happy Forty-seventh anniversary to us!

Waiting with Silent Hope

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How often we fill our minds with things that do not make for peace! My mind, for instance, can quickly fill with health worries or the reality of missing my grandchildren. It is not uncommon for me to dwell on the notion that I abandoned them by moving away. It’s not uncommon for me to focus on one aspect of my health and blow it out of proportion, leaving me with a heart full of fears about the future.

But when I allow myself to fill my mind with worries, I am definitely not at peace. I become restless and fearful. A heavy feeling of dread descends upon me. I feel alone, and inadequate to face the future.

But there is a remedy for such harmful feelings. It is placing myself in the presence of God. It is waiting in silent hope for God’s voice of comfort. It’s not always easy to do, but it is a calming and peaceful state of being. Howard Thurman describes it beautifully.

“We wait now in Thy Presence with the silent hope that something may transpire within us that will relax the hold we have on the things that do not make for peace.”

I cannot say it any better than that. I can only wait in God’s presence with silent hope.